Zechariah, Mary and the Asking of Questions

An important part of apologetics is about the asking of questions and the wrestling with the potential answers. Although some people are uncomfortable with questions, they are essential to a healthy and strong faith. I always encourage both Christians and skeptics to ask the hard questions. However, if you have spent any time doing this, you will realize that there are questions and then there are questions. Not all questions are equally helpful.

A good example of this is found in the first chapter of Luke. In this chapter, the angel Gabriel reveals to Zechariah that he is going to be a father and to Mary that she is going to be a mother. In both stories, the recipients of the revelation ask the same question: “How can this be?” Strangely, the angel reacts quite different to the same question. In Zechariah’s case, the angel punishes him by making him mute. In Mary’s case, she is praised as a great woman of God. You can almost imagine Zechariah and Mary comparing notes at a family reunion.

This is much more than just Gabriel being fickle in his response. Although their words were almost the same, the questions asked by Zechariah and Mary were quite different. When Zechariah said “How can this be?”, what he really meant was “There is no way that can happen, just look at my situation!” When Mary said “How can this be?”, what she really meant was “That is amazing! I wonder how God will do that in my case?” Zechariah was asking out of stubborn skepticism. Mary was asking out of a sense of wonder and awe. Not only was there a difference in their attitude, there was a difference in their background. Zechariah was an older man who was a priest and who was very familiar with his Hebrew heritage. He would have known that God had provided children to older and barren couples in the past. Mary was a young girl (perhaps as young as 13), who would have had much less religious training. Even if she had been trained, there were no other examples of virgins conceiving in Israel’s history. So, despite the similarity in wording, the questions of these two individuals are very different.

This dynamic continues today. Both Christians and skeptics will ask questions. But before we answer, we should take a moment of reflecting on what type of question they are asking. Is the person asking out of dogmatic skepticism or are they asking out of sincere curiosity and wonder? We can ask questions about the resurrection of Jesus because we have predetermined that it is impossible or we can ask out of being in the presence of a great mystery. We can ask questions about the Bible because we want to reject it or we can have legitimate questions as we wrestle with difficult truths.

An important thing to remember is that this does not mean that the Zechariah-type questions are rejected as unacceptable by God. In a way, Zechariah received the answer he was looking for. He needed something to strengthen his faith and he received the gift of miraculous muteness to show that God was indeed capable of doing this. This was the type of question that Thomas asked after hearing rumors of the resurrection. Jesus did not reject his question but presented himself to be examined by Thomas.

At the same time, it would be better for us to have Mary-like faith, one that confesses a lack of understanding and yet trusts that God will do what he has promised. Ask the questions, but ask out of wonder and not out of stubborn skepticism.

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